On Apple Pies at the Harmony Free Fair
Dawn Potter rocks.
Not only does she have three books to her credit (Boy Land & Other Poems, Deerbrook Editions, 2004;
How the Crimes Happened, CavanKerry Press, 2010; and Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton, University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), and not only is she the assistant director of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, but she is also in charge of the exhibition hall at the Harmony Free Fair, held annually over Labor Day weekend. She’s the one who organizes those vegetables, those canned goods, those quilts, those photographs and woodcrafts. And it was in this capacity that she asked me to judge this year’s apple pie contest.
I have never judged an apple pie contest–though I have experience judging writing contests and high school debate. I have made pies, but I’m not an expert by any means. I consider my primary qualification to judge this contest to be that I eat pie. Thus I really had no idea what I was getting into until Sunday morning when I trudged up the hill to the new exhibition hall, which Dawn had said looks like a fire truck garage, and is one. “Enter by the secret side entrance,” she had instructed. When I asked whether there was a password that would enable me to get in, her reply was, “No, I just pull back my invisible speak-easy slide and verify by a brief cynical glance that you have the goods.” At the hall I met Dawn and the other judges, Laura and Kathy, to receive our instructions and the judging rubric from the state agricultural fair board–which, contrary to expectations, did not self-destruct in ten seconds.
Being an official pie judge turned out to be far more involved than I ever would have guessed. Each of us had to assess each entry on four points: the appearance of the pie, the crust, the filling, and the ease or clarity of the recipe. Under Dawn’s tutelage, we began by examining the entries: one had attractive fluting on the edges. One had steam vents cut in a feathered design. One was browned unevenly on the top. One had spots where the juices had bubbled up through the vents. One had an obvious patch where the pie crust had torn or had been rolled too thin. I listened to Kathy and Laura, two plainly experienced pie-women, as they pointed out these details I had never considered in my own pie artistry–or lack thereof–and I tried to hide my chagrin. I began to suspect that, though I’d made my first pie at my grandmother’s instruction at eight years old, I was a rank pastry amateur. According to the rubric, we could give each pie up to 30 points for appearance, and I had to fight the urge to give out sympathy points.
Crust and filling were even more difficult, since they had to be judged separately, and were worth 30 points each. Dawn cut each of us a tiny sliver of each entry, one at a time, commenting on the feel as her knife slide through the pie. Sticky, she said at one point. Air pocket. Flaky. She used the term integrity of crust, which sounded so officially analytical that I was frightened. Again I listened to Kathy and Laura musing, this time over the kind of early-season apples that might have been used, over whether there was flour in the filling, or too much cinnamon. For my part I poked at the pie crust, peeling the bottom and top crusts away from the filling, tasting them, crumbling them between my fingers. I forked up the filling gingerly. When Laura laughingly asked me what I thought, I mumbled something about wanting my pie filling to still have lumps resembling apples in it, rather than being all cooked down to total mush. But as I wrote down my scores for crusts and fillings, I knew that I was beyond being a pie amateur: I was a total pie loser.
The last ten score points for the pies had us examining the recipes. Laura smiled at one or two of them, pegging them as almost directly out of the old Betty Crocker cookbook. Kathy noted that all the crusts were shortening crusts, and none of them butter crusts. This launched the pair of them into a discussion of the relative merits of both, and of mixing shortening and butter. I started to think–hopefully–that this might be my salvation: I would come away from Harmony with a new understanding of pie, and would no longer be a pastry inept. I hoped desperately that I could remember all they said, as I could see no way to take furtive notes under the table.
All in all, I enjoyed, as always, eating the pie. At the end of the judging, when we three judges compared our scores, I found that, despite my relative pie ignorance, I had somehow given the high score to the same pie Laura and Kathy had chosen: we had come to the same conclusion, but by different means. I felt a bit better about things at that point.
Of course, I’m exaggerating. I hadn’t really felt bad about the experience at all. Who could, when faced with the opportunity to eat apple pie? But it helped that, because Dawn Potter rocks, she chose to start off our judging experience by reading–what else?–a poem. The piece was “Ray” by Hayden Carruth, which is a poem about eating a big slice of store-bought pie in the middle of the night while thinking about the writer Raymond Carver. Who else other than Dawn would think of having us stand together at the end of the exhibition hall, in the midst of tomatoes and pattypan squash and jars of pickled beets and beans, while she read aloud a beautiful and sad poem about pie? I can’t think of anyone. I’m glad she invited me to join Laura and Kathy. The judging was an adventure. The poem made it awesome.